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The long march
In 1965 Congress enacted a revolutionary voting rights act. Do we still need it?
Scholars, journalists, and public servants gathered in Robsham Theater on October 29 as Boston College hosted “Retracing the Struggle: The Legacy of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” a 40th-anniversary symposium organized by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. By turns they noted the act’s historic achievements (black voter registration rates in Mississippi, for instance, rose from 6.7 percent to 74.2 percent in a little over 20 years), and disagreed sharply on its necessity today. Some speakers had been present at the dramatic events that propelled the Voting Rights Act—a bloody beating of peaceful voting rights marchers by state troopers on a bridge near Selma, Alabama, and the march of 25,000 strong that followed—and they shared their recollections. A sampler of remarks follows.
The right plan
A segregated electorate
The pull back
Patricia J. Williams
Sidebar: About the Act
Sidebar: Roxbury to Boston Common
The right plan
In Selma 40 years ago, people answered a fundamental paradox: If power is measured by the vote, how, if you have no vote, do you gain power? The Selma plan was a result of the Birmingham church bombing 14 months before, in which four young girls were killed. Jim Bevel and Diane Nash, two members of King’s staff who had pushed him to let small children march in Birmingham, felt so bad after the bombing that they resolved to have one of two plans to present to Dr. King by the next morning—either a vigilante undertaking to find and assassinate the Klansmen who were responsible, or something spun from the nonviolent measures they had been applying, on a scale sufficient to answer the heinousness of the crime. By morning they had compiled a plan to shut down Alabama nonviolently until the state would grant black people the right to vote. The theory was that if black people could vote, elected officials wouldn’t slough off such crimes. Bevel and Nash nagged Dr. King to take up what would become the Selma campaign.
Dr. King went from the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance ceremony in December 1964 to the Selma jail on February 1, 1965. He willed himself back to Selma. He said he had promised these two young people on his staff that he would pursue the right to vote—and their plan—once segregation had been addressed with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
I firmly believe that we live in an era that is still being reformed by Martin Luther King and that movement. It is why we are where we are on gay rights and women’s rights and a number of other rights. Iraq has its first constitution and an election, and everybody—right, left, center—knows that it matters whether Iraqi women can vote.
And what is a vote? I would argue that each ballot is a piece of nonviolence. It is a consent to let every citizen decide the great political questions. Nonviolent power, the most potent concept to come out of the civil rights era, is the heart and soul, the definition even, of democracy.
Taylor Branch is the author of America in the King Years, volume one of which, Parting the Waters, earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1989. The second volume, Pillar of Fire, was published in 1998, the third and final volume, At Canaan’s Edge, this year.
Right after Dr. King put out the call in response to Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, I flew down to Selma. Arriving in the middle of the night, I slept on a floor in a motel with nine Episcopalian ministers.
Thousands started the march from Selma to Montgomery. On the route there was a narrow stretch of highway along which, by court order, only 300 individuals were permitted to proceed for the next three days—300 people to walk and sleep in the mud. First the Selma young people who had been in the march’s forefront were chosen. Then the leaders of 22 organizations were picked, and 10 special guests of Dr. King. Finally, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Andy Young came out of the tent and read my name. I was privileged to be in the mud.
Somewhere out of the crucible of Southern politics and Southern reality Lyndon Johnson had seen how racial discrimination was tearing the South apart, how it was a cancer on the American soul. (Though their learning curve was extraordinary, John and Robert Kennedy had been slower to understand—the discrimination that they thought they knew a lot about was against Irish Catholics, overcome by hard work and luck.) By the time the march occurred, Johnson had gone to Congress and called for the most sweeping voting rights act in history. He had federal helicopters flying over the highway. He had federalized marshals along the way of the march. Some of us complained that the marshals were looking at the marchers instead of out in the bushes. A signal was given and they turned around and faced the woods.
After the narrow road, the 300 joined with thousands upon thousands of people of all kinds from around the country marching to the front steps of the Confederacy, the Alabama capitol building. Governor George Wallace was said to be looking out the windows of his office. “We’re winning a revolution today without a shot being fired,” Andy Young told the crowd. And then King spoke: “How long, oh Lord?” he said. And for the first time he continued, “Not long. How long? Not long.”
Harris Wofford was special assistant for civil rights during the Kennedy administration and White House liaison to the Peace Corps, which he was instrumental in founding. He has also been the president of Bryn Mawr College, a U.S. Senator (D-Pennsylvania), and CEO of the Corporation for National Service, which administers Americorps. Wofford’s book Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties was published in 1980.
The writing of the U.S. Constitution was the moment of original sin for voting rights in this country. I say that because there is no explicit right to vote in the Constitution. There wasn’t in 1789; there is not now. The Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore clearly states this with respect to presidential elections.
The founding fathers weren’t sure whether voting was a right or a privilege. And for practical, political reasons they left the matter to the states. The 15th Amendment, passed in the aftermath of the Civil War, appeared to guarantee African-Americans the right to vote. But it was phrased as a negative prohibition: It says “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied . . . on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
For a while this helped.
Into the early 1880s, African-Americans in the South elected representatives to Congress, the Senate, and thousands of local offices. But after the Union armies pulled out in 1877, white supremacist governments returned to power. Republicans, who found themselves losing strength in the South, designed a piece of legislation to enforce voting rights in the region—the Federal Elections Bill of 1890. The bill was an early version of the Voting Rights Act. It provided for sending federal agents to supervise Southern elections and would have put the election results under control of federal courts.
The Republicans waited for the moment when they had a Republican president, Benjamin Harrison, and control of both houses to introduce the bill. It passed in the House but met with a filibuster in the Senate. A couple of Republicans split off, and the Federal Elections Bill of 1890 was lost on a procedural vote of 35 to 34. One vote prevented it from staying alive and likely being passed.
There is a lesson here about seizing the moment when you have a chance to reform. In 1891, the federal government retreated, and not for another 75 years would it be possible to seriously introduce legislation like the Voting Rights Act. The mid-1960s afforded a rare convergence of favorable circumstances—in politics, leadership, the external pressures of the Cold War, and prosperity. There is a pessimistic thought that I occasionally have: If the Voting Rights Act had not been passed then, could it have passed anytime in the last 20 years?
Alexander Keyssar is the Stirling Professor of History and Social Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and the author of The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (2000).
A segregated electorate
It has been said that a consequence of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was to produce a much greater number of African-Americans in Congress than would have been there otherwise. But, the argument goes, this has come at a cost. The redistricting that created more primarily African-American electorates has also contributed many more white Republican congressmen, and while Congress itself is now more racially representative of the country as a whole, in terms of policy it is more hostile to the interests of African-Americans.
The homogeneity of congressional districts around the country has been increasing. It used to be that congressmen and congresswomen represented all kinds of people. Now we have wealthy districts, poor districts, a growing general segregation. To the degree that the Voting Rights Act has created a class of officeholders dependent upon a homogeneous district for re-election, has an incentive for addressing this trend, which I consider dangerous to democracy, been removed from lawmakers? Lyndon Johnson famously said that when he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 he was essentially consigning his party to political death, but that something bigger than his party was at stake for him. Here too with the vote: On the one hand, the way in which we vote is tied up in political parties and personal interests. On the other, to vote is to reaffirm one’s membership in the country. To vote is to commit to the whole.
Alan Wolfe is a professor of political science and the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and Public Life at Boston College. He is the author of Return to Greatness: How America Lost Its Sense of Purpose and What It Needs to Do to Recover It (2005).
The pull back
Patricia J. Williams
I want to talk about the climate in which Section 5, a temporary provision of the Voting Rights Act due to expire in 2007, is now being discussed. Section 5 is known as the preclearance provision. When the Voting Rights Bill became law in 1965, it provided for federal oversight of election procedures in certain states and voting districts, primarily in the South. In those targeted areas, no adjustments to the voting process may be enacted without prior federal review. I do not deny that we have made progress. And yet I think we are at a precarious moment. I worry that we could go back in time.
On the one hand, we are being called to notions of colorblindness in which race supposedly does not matter. On the other, a great outrage of disparity persists. These times are as divided as any we have seen—divided not simply by red state and blue state, Democrat and Republican, conservative and liberal, but by values having to do with the roles of men and women, race, and immigration.
Does this affect voting? It certainly is part of the backdrop that affects voting. In the last election, we saw not just felon disenfranchisement but the disenfranchisement of individuals whose names purportedly resembled those of felons. The degree to which this action fell disparately upon communities of color, liberal communities, and Jewish and immigrant neighborhoods in Florida is confirmed by data.
Just recently federal oversight struck down a Georgia provision requiring a photo ID to vote. The provision sounded neutral enough, but part of oversight is deciphering the degree to which a new requirement may stand for something else. In Georgia, this requirement reduced the possible avenues of identification for purposes of voting from 16 to six. There are no Department of Motor Vehicles offices in the city of Atlanta. They’re all in the suburbs.
In various public housing buildings in the North, the elevators go out on Election Day. In New York City, 50 percent of African-American men from 18 to 65 are unemployed. If that doesn’t contribute to lower voter turnout, I don’t know what does. I am a proponent not simply of renewing Section 5 but of expanding it.
Patricia J. Williams is the Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University and a columnist for the Nation. She is the author of Seeing a Color-blind Future: The Paradox of Race (1998).
While the permanent provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are rightly permanent, the act’s temporary, emergency provisions are wildly out of sync with racial reality today.
When drawing up voting districts, state legislatures assume that the temporary provisions in Section 5 have created an entitlement to proportional racial and ethnic representation. And so their first act is to draw up majority black or Hispanic districts. Other priorities—incumbency protection, for instance—then fall into place around them.
But America has changed over four decades. The South has changed. In Georgia, black participation rates in the most recent presidential elections exceeded those of whites. Increasingly, black Georgians are being elected to public office: Of the 34 officeholders elected statewide, currently nine are black, a figure just short of proportional representation. Add one more, and black representation would be disproportionately high.
In 2001, the legislative black caucus in Georgia signed on to a districting plan that siphoned black voters from majority black districts into districts where blacks would be a substantial minority—what are now called influence districts. The black leadership had become convinced that the election of blacks to office no longer depended on districts where blacks were the overwhelming majority. They could assume a substantial white crossover vote, an assumption built on experience. In Georgia, white support for black candidates is higher than black support for white office seekers. Black candidates running statewide in the four most recent elections had a success rate of 71 percent; the white rate was only 41 percent. In Georgia v. Ashcroft, decided by the Supreme Court in 2003, the legislative black caucus testified in support of the 2001 plan’s combination of influence districts and majority black districts.
In an America in which blacks are increasingly integrated into economic and political life, Section 5 segregates voters, creating a system that, as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has said, “bears an uncomfortable resemblance to political apartheid.” If Section 5 were to disappear, the permanent provisions of the act would continue to protect against discriminatory voting arrangements, allowing for remedy in the federal courts.
Abigail Thernstrom is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a member of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, and vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She is coauthor, with Stephan Thernstrom, of No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning (2003).
William Faulkner had an expression that I’ve become fond of: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This year is, of course, the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. It’s also the 40th anniversary of the heinous murders of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, young men slain in Mississippi in 1965 for trying to help black people register to vote.
Truthfully, I don’t put much stock in symbolic gestures. But when the U.S. Senate last June took up a resolution to apologize for failing more than once in its history to enact an antilynching law, I thought the resolution—which had no force of law—would meet with unanimous favor. Yet among the 13 senators who failed to be counted as cosponsors of the resolution were a number from Southern states, including Mississippi’s two Republican senators, Thad Cochran and Trent Lott. It is dangerous to romanticize the level of progress that we have made.
One quick story—it involves the late Senator Strom Thurmond, a Republican from South Carolina. Senator Thurmond was the Dixiecrat candidate of 1948, running on an avowedly racist platform for president of the United States. He represented Southern politicians who abandoned the principles of American democracy, largely out of fear that black people would be given the right to vote. And yet Thurmond was one of the smartest and wiliest politicians of his day. Twenty-two years later, when the temporary provisions of the Voting Rights Act were last reauthorized in a major way, he knew that much had changed because of it, that if he wanted to stay in power, he could no longer pursue a hostile racial agenda that would put him afoul of the black and white constituency he represented. As he was about to enter the Senate chamber to vote on reauthorization, he walked over to Althea Simmons, then director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, gave her a wink and said, “Althea, I’m going to be with you.” Such was the transformative power of the Voting Rights Act, softening, if not the heart, then certainly the political wisdom of avowedly racist politicians.
That transformation did not grow out of passivity. As the great labor and human rights leader A. Philip Randolph said: “At the banquet table of nature, there are no free seats. You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold.”
Wade Henderson is the executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Joseph L. Rauh, Jr., Professor of Public Interest Law at the David A. Clarke School of Law, University of the District of Columbia.
Three parts of the Voting Rights Act should not be extended. The first is the requirement that certain jurisdictions print ballots in languages other than English. This provision is puzzling, because in order to vote in this country, you generally have to be a citizen, and in order to become a citizen, the naturalization process generally requires that you be able to speak and read English. The fact is that ballots in languages other than English facilitate voting by noncitizens. They also result in balkanization and needless expense.
Second, the preclearance provisions of Section 5 now apply capriciously. Virginia has to get precleared, Maryland does not. The Bronx has to get precleared, Queens doesn’t. Texas and Arizona do; Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arkansas do not. The two poster children for voting rights abuses in the last two presidential elections, Florida and Ohio, do not. In my view, it no longer makes sense to have the preclearance provisions, but if we do have them, we need to redefine the covered jurisdictions.
Third, the Voting Rights Act makes it illegal not only to treat potential voters differently because of race, but also to adopt any voting practice that simply has disproportionate racial results. A few years ago, the people of Massachusetts decided to cease allowing prison inmates to vote. The decision was applied to white and black inmates alike. It was not undertaken to keep African-American inmates from voting, but rather out of a concern that, for one thing, inmates had begun to organize political action committees. And yet because of the way the Voting Rights Act is written, that change is vulnerable to a challenge if the racial makeup of the inmate population does not mirror precisely the general population of the state.
Congress should debate these issues, never losing sight of the enormous progress the act has brought in the past 40 years.
Roger Clegg is vice president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a contributing editor at National Review Online.
Sunday March 7, 1965, about 600 of us lined up in twos with the intention to walk in an orderly, peaceful fashion from Selma to Montgomery, to dramatize to the nation that we wanted the right to register to vote. We came to the edge of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and were about to cross the Alabama River. A young man from Dr. King’s organization, Hosea Williams, looked at me and said, “John, can you swim?” I said, “No. Hosea, can you swim?” He said no. I said, “There’s too much water there. We’re not going to jump and we’re not going back. We’re going forward.”
When we got to the top of the bridge, down below we saw a sea of blue—Alabama state troopers. We continued to walk, until we came within hearing distance. A man identified himself. He said, “I’m Major John Cloud of the Alabama state troopers. This is an unlawful march, and it will not be allowed to continue. I give you three minutes to disperse and return to your church.” In less than a minute, he said, “Troopers, advance.” And these men came toward us, beating us with nightsticks and bullwhips, trampling us with horses, and releasing their tear gas. Several of us were hurt and hospitalized that day. I was hit on the head by a trooper with a nightstick and suffered a concussion. I gave a little blood on that bridge for the right to vote, for the right of all of us to participate in the democratic process.
Joe Smitherman was mayor of Selma from 1964 to 2000. He used to call me a troublemaker, an outside agitator. But as black people started registering and voting, he came to call me one of the bravest men he’d ever known, and one of his closest friends.
Smitherman was ultimately defeated by a young African-American named James Perkins. The Selma city government now is biracial.
Congress is going to reauthorize those sections of the Voting Rights Act that need to be reauthorized. We’re going to do it because it is the right thing to do and the necessary thing to do. There may be some debate. But we’ve come too far to turn back now. America is in the process of laying down the burden of race, but we still have a great distance to go, far to go. We need the Voting Rights Act—we need Section 5—to move us faster and further down the road. And I think we will make it.
U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-Georgia) has served in Congress since 1986. From 1963 to 1966, he was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. His autobiography, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, was published in 1998.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 contains 19 sections. Among the key ones:
The statement of principle. A so-called permanent provision that basically tracks the 15th Amendment, it says in full: “No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any state or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” In other sections, the act provides for the attorney general to prosecute transgressors and the federal courts to adjudicate with the authority to suspend unlawful practices.
The hit list. Recognizing that prosecution of abuses after the fact would be a nearly interminable and inconclusive means of protecting voting rights, Congress inserted special temporary provisions aimed at locales with a clear history of discriminatory practice. Section 4 defines these locales. They include states or “political subdivisions” where less than 50 percent of voting-age residents were registered to vote on November 1, 1964, or where less than 50 percent voted in the subsequent presidential election. The definition encircled most Southern states, but also Alaska and parts of Idaho.
The preemptive strike. Aimed at the locales outlined in Section 4, it states that they may revise voting procedures and requirements only after obtaining clearance from the U.S. attorney general or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Since 1965, some 15,000 to 20,000 proposed changes annually have been reviewed.
Sections 6, 7, and 8
The intervention. These sections effectively provide for federal examiners to register voters in offending districts and to monitor “whether persons who are entitled to vote are being permitted to vote.” Before 1965 was out, some 250,000 new black voters had signed on to voting rolls, about a third of them registered by these examiners.
By a vote of 333 to 48 in the House, and 77 to 19 in the Senate, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act on August 5, 1965. President Johnson signed it into law the next day. Revisions and extensions of the special provisions followed in 1970, 1975, and 1982. Also in 1975, Congress introduced a new requirement, the bilingual ballot for districts where more than 5 percent of voting-age residents make up a “single language minority.” With this change, portions of California, Florida, Michigan, New York, and South Dakota entered the purview of Section 5.
In 2007, with a 25-year extension due to expire, Congress will again take up the scope and longevity of the act’s special provisions.
Roxbury to Boston Common
On the day after the symposium in Robsham Theater, a crowd of some 4,000 reenacted a historic demonstration that took place just over 40 years ago, when, one month after the Selma march, Martin Luther King, Jr., led 22,000 people three miles from Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood to the city common. King’s march had served as equal parts fundraiser and protest of de facto segregation in local schools and housing. The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities organized the commemorative march; Boston College’s Intersections Project was a cosponsor.
Among the present-day participants were more than 30 Boston College students from the Lynch School honors program, the Faith, Peace, and Justice minor program, the AHANA Leadership Council, and service groups such as 4Boston—who rode in a rented school bus to the rallying point, Roxbury’s Unitarian First Church, four miles east of campus. Abigail Kritzler ’06, an education major from Wilmette, Illinois, who volunteers at the church, and John Cawthorne, associate dean of the Lynch School and a veteran of the civil rights movement, organized the BC marchers.
At the church, the 30-plus students joined a standing crowd ringed by event security and flecked with banners dedicated to voter registration and Iraq troop withdrawal. As the crowd near the front listened attentively and others at the back chatted, community activists and politicians, including Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and the march’s leader, Georgia Congressman John Lewis, gave brief speeches.
Close to the church steps during the rally, the BC students were in the march’s sparse tail as it began, behind a homemade banner suspended between two vertical shower rods; the banner, signed by each student, declared “Boston College for Equal Rights.” Their pace was brisk for the day’s unseasonable warmth. The students sang “This Little Light of Mine” as they turned left onto Malcolm X Boulevard and regrouped with the march’s body, which contained a wide range of Bostonians, from Roxbury youth groups to modish young families with strollers. As the march curled northeast onto Tremont Street and toward downtown, past the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center and a large, unfinished mosque in scaffolding, it stretched five blocks long and was as wide as a traffic lane.
A flyer distributed at the rally included song suggestions, and as the walkers passed Boston Police headquarters, Jim Unis ’06, cofounder of BC’s multiethnic social-outreach group Faces, began to sing “This Little Light” with two middle-aged black women from Roxbury. At six-foot-five, Unis, a former BC football player whose career was cut short by concussion, towered over his musical partners but followed their lead through the lyrics. When consulted on their next tune, Unis said to the women, “Go ahead and start something and I’ll sing.” They began the emphatic and rhythmic “(Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody) Turn Me Around” as the march passed curious faces in the windows of several Northeastern University apartments and moved through Boston’s South End.
Clouds began to obscure the sun, and Kritzler and Chelsea Jones ’06, another cofounder of Faces, rallied their section with an escalating call-and-answer, “What do we want? Equality! When do we want it? Now!” Approaching Boston Common, two students were overheard discussing Congressman Lewis’s exhortation to the young to speak with veterans of the civil rights movement. One asked: “Want to go find one?” The response: “How?” An enthusiastic choir greeted the marchers as they arrived at the Parkman Bandstand on the common, where 40 years ago King had declared, “I come to Boston not to condemn, but instead to encourage this great city.”